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NEW DELHI: India on Thursday opposed a move by developed countries at the World Trade Organiation (WTO) to scrap subsidies for fishermen, demanding a balance between current and future fishing needs of developing countries as well as effective special and differential treatment (S&DT) keeping in mind their developmental needs.

"An important element of what India wants is appropriate and effective special and differential treatment (S&DT), in the true spirit as enshrined in the guiding principles of the Marrakesh Agreement. Limiting S&DT to poor and artisanal fishermen only is neither appropriate, nor affordable and not acceptable at all. S&DT has to be for a country as a whole. We need S&DT to not only protect livelihoods of poor fishermen but also to address food security concerns of a nation, have the necessary policy space for developing the fisheries sector and for the time required to put in place systems to implement the disciplines," India’s trade minister Piyush Goyal said in a statement during the ministerial meeting on fisheries negotiations at WTO.

Developed countries claim that fisheries subsidies, estimated to be in tens of billions of dollars annually, create significant distortions in global fish markets and are a major factor contributing to overfishing and overcapacity and the depletion of fishes.

Developing countries such as India, on the other hand, want to protect subsidies for low-income, resource-poor fishermen for whom it is a matter of livelihood and constitutes a significant electorate in coastal states such as Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. A deal is mostly targeted at China, which is the largest catcher and exporter of fish and provides huge domestic subsidy to its fishermen. India is a distant seventh among top fish exporters and does not indulge in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing which WTO wants to curb.

Goyal said India is very keen to finalise the agreement because irrational subsidies and overfishing by many countries is hurting Indian fishermen and their livelihood. “However, I am disappointed to note that we are still short of finding the right balance and fairness in the agreement."

India has said that WTO members should not repeat the mistakes made during the Uruguay Round which allowed unequal and trade-distorting entitlements for select developed members, particularly in agriculture, while unfairly constraining less developed members who did not have the capacity and resources to support their industry or farmers then.

"Fisheries are a common endowment to humanity, a global public commons. Therefore, the sharing of this should be in an equitable and just manner. Any unbalanced or unequal agreement would bind us into current fishing arrangements which may not necessarily meet everyone’s future requirements. As we discuss sustainability, it is essential that big subsidizers take greater responsibility to reduce their subsidies and fishing capacities, in accordance with the principles of ‘Polluter Pays’ and ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’," Goyal said.

Goyal said any fisheries agreement must recognise that different countries are at different stages of development and current fishing arrangements reflect their current economic capacities. “Countries like India who are yet to develop fishing capabilities, cannot be expected to sacrifice their future ambitions, while protecting those members providing huge subsidies and overexploiting fisheries resources and continue to engage in unsustainable fishing. Therefore, it is imperative to preserve space for growth in fishing capacities of the developing world for the future without locking them into disadvantageous arrangements in perpetuity," he added.

The sustainability based approach in the Overcapacity and Overfishing pillar in the current form will create significant inequity for developing countries, Goyal said. “Clearly, it will lead to capacity constraints for developing countries, while advanced nations will continue to grant subsidies. This is unequal, unfair, unjust. If non-specific fuel subsidies are not brought under disciplines, another major disparity will be introduced by large harmful subsidies outside of all disciplines. Giving special treatment to non-recovery of subsidies under Government-to-Government fisheries ‘access agreements’ is akin to cherry-picking," he added.

Goyal said the sovereign rights of coastal states to explore, exploit and manage living resources within their maritime jurisdiction, enshrined in international instruments must be preserved. “The determination by coastal states should be given primacy and not be subject to WTO dispute settlement mechanism," he said.

Countries still need to cover significant ground to make the negotiating text balanced, to meet the just concerns of developing and LDC members, Goyal said, adding that India will soon submit proposals to address its concerns including incorporating ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in sharing this common endowment. “India is committed to conclude the negotiations, so long as it provides for balancing current and future fishing needs, preserving space for equitable growth in fishing capacities in future, and effective S&DT without any imbalances," he added.

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